Deceptive Realities in Photography


reality_03Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography

The advent and popularity of the digital camera provoke consideration of many questions regarding authenticity, reality and representation in the world of contemporary photography. The special exhibition Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art attempts to address these issues with a collection of work that challenges the viewer's perception of what is tangible and artificial, representative and contrived.

Of course, as a display case in the exhibition testifies, notions of artifice and illusion have existed within the highly versatile medium of photography since its invention. One image depicts a man towering over a fake automobile on the original Scarface movie set. While photography is the medium most attuned to capturing visions of reality, this assumption about representation can easily lure viewers into a false sense of security regarding the reality of photographs. This exhibit illustrates how scale, editing, perspective and exposure techniques, in addition to constructed or staged content, can create deception.

The gallery is not very large, but is filled with images taken from the museum's permanent collection. Each work in the exhibition almost seems to complement another in terms of content or technique. One photograph depicts an old graveyard in Timbuktu in which the benign headstones seem more like boulders or pottery scattered naturally through the dry landscape -- a beautiful scene that belies its true, more solemn function. Across the gallery from it is an ominous picture of, as the label tells us, another grave: a cryogenic freezer. The white and hazy image represents a subject nearly unidentifiable to the average viewer. Depth is difficult to perceive and scale seems unnatural. The photograph is haunting and evokes in the viewer an unsettling emotion when he learns what has been captured on film. The exhibit also features interesting juxtapositions of illusions, such as Craig Kalpakjian's computer-generated "Corridor," and truths, such as Julian Faulhaber's hyper-colorful "Tankstelle [Gas Station]."

The exhibit also shows photos of dioramas, which look real, and city aerials, which look like dioramas. The show succeeds in positing the artificial and the real in a way that makes viewers question their perceptions about photography, representation, truth, and illusion. One remembers the power of the camera and the photograph.

In addition to addressing issues of reality and artifice, many of the photographs themselves, whether altered are not, are beautiful and exciting works of art. The photographs are large. The colors are rich. The subjects are captivating. The exhibit attests to photography's longevity and success as an art form and a communication method. - Rian Rooney

Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography is on view until March 22.

rian-rooney.jpgMr. Rooney is a student at Columbia University and has worked for the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, WBAR radio and Showpaper.